Historians join attack on Starkey’s riot race claims

Aug 26, 2011
Ben Riley-Smith

Academics say his analysis of the UK riots would ‘disgrace a first-year history undergraduate’

More than 100 academics and students have signed an open letter condemning TV historian David Starkey for comments he made about the UK riots and race on a recent BBC Newsnight programme, denouncing his argument as "evidentially insupportable and factually wrong".

Starkey caused controversy earlier this month by responding to a question about the cause of recent rioting by saying: "What has happened is that a substantial section of the chavs... have become black. The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion."

Commentators lined up afterwards to call Starkey a racist and announce his career was over. Now a group of his fellow historians and academics have sent an open letter to the Times Higher Education magazine in an effort to distance themselves from Starkey. Among them are academics from Cambridge and the London School of Economics – two institutions Starkey taught at.

The signatories say Starkey's "crass generalisations about black culture and white culture as oppositional, monolithic entities demonstrate a failure to grasp the subtleties of race and class that would disgrace a first-year history undergraduate. In fact, it appears to us that the BBC was more interested in employing him for his on-screen persona and tendency to make comments that viewers find offensive than for his skills as a historian".

Starkey's TV manner also comes under fire: "Instead of thoughtfully responding to criticism, he simply shouted it down; instead of debating his fellow panellists from a position of knowledge, he belittled and derided them... displaying some of the worst practices of an academic."

But it was the BBC's decision to call Starkey a 'historian' that was the group's key frustration. "Starkey has professed himself to be a historian of elites," the letter reads. "His academic work has never focused on race and class." Broadcasters should "think carefully" before inviting an academic unfamiliar with the subject matter, the letter continued.

The academics concluded with a plea: "We would ask that he is no longer allowed to bring our profession into disrepute by being introduced as 'the historian, David Starkey' when commenting on issues outside his fields of expertise."

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